The circle of purple flowers opens both up and down the flower heads and they remind me of the wonderful lines about the candle burning at both ends.
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
When the brief firework of flowers are over, the seed heads will ripen and the dried heads will stand all winter long to feed the meticulous goldfinches when there seems nothing left to eat in the world.
The prickly, unpromising Teasels really are a “lovely light” at both ends of the year.
This wonderful shining knot of slow worms were coiled up together in the warm compost bin. They aren’t worms or snakes, but harmless legless lizards that share our garden and eat the slugs.
We used to be delighted if we saw one basking on a sunny day all golden smooth in the bright light. Winston the cat used to bring them to us occasionally, unharmed but tailless where they had dropped their wriggling tail in the hope of distracting a predator while they escaped. He seems to have grown out of that habit and the slow worms have happily raised families in the warmth and safely of the lidded plastic compost bin. There were at least six when the lid was raised to deposit the daily offerings of tea leaves and potatoes peelings and most just slid away amongst the cuttings and warmly decomposing compost. You can see three heads of the ones who were slower to move.
Apparently they can stay intertwined when mating for 10 hours, so there may have been good reason for their sluggishness!
I like to think of our kitchen “rubbish” breeding such beauty!
Some mornings the moth trap produces a real wonder.
While noting the usual suspects ( footmen, yellow underwings, magpie etc etc ) I saw a hawk moth on the egg boxes. At first I assumed it was a poplar hawk moth, but it’s body was curled up like a convulous hawk moth so I took a closer look . As I gently took out the egg box on which it was sitting , it flashed two extraordinary blue and pink eyes at me.
The eyes were startling and bright and were unexpected enough to deter most predators. Just as quickly they were hidden again under dull coloured fore wings and the eyes were closed.
Many moth names are expressive or simply odd, so it was a little disappointing to find that this wonderful creature has been given the pedestrianly obvious name of Eyed Hawk-moth Smerinthus ocellata
Maybe you can suggest something more fitting to this eye catching beauty!
This is the only lily that survived the hail storm . It is damaged but it’s perfume is undiminished and breathtakingly lovely.
It made me think of this wonderful poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I was looking for a copy of the poem on the Poetry Foundation Website and I found that he had died only a few months ago. This poem has circled in my head since I first read it . The poem is universal , deeply human and the author was a great poet .
Try to praise the mutilated world. Remember June’s long days, and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine. The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere, you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully. You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together in a white room and the curtain fluttered. Return in thought to the concert where music flared. You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars. Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.
Nearly a year ago, on a very hot day, a solitary wasp built a mud nest under my kitchen window sill. It filled the mud dome with food for it grubs and then it sealed the young in and flew away.
I have checked on it periodically, hoped it was still alive after a very cold winter and an icy spring. It was well sheltered from the hail by the overhang and while I was busy doing something else , the young bit their way out of the rock hard dome and literally flew the nest.
I wonder if a new wasp will be back to build again. It is cool and wet this year and these wasps are on the edge of their range, so maybe they will not venture north again this year.
The moths are about three weeks late this year. I have been mothing in this garden for so long now that I know when each species should appear. The yellow underwings are here: the large and the broad bordered: the first fan foots are here, the ubiquitous hearts and darts are here in proper numbers and the uncertains are definitely on the wing. Dark arches are appearing, commonfootmen and little magpie moths are in the moth trap and on the windows. Oracle moths have turned up and today a lovely furry headed poplarhawk moth took a liking to my pencil and sat on it all rainy day. You can see my note book of species noted each day under his wings as he sheltered the endlessly rainy day away on the dry garden table.
Just over a week from the devastating hailstorm that trashed the garden, there is some regrowth .
One courgette plant and one pumpkin plant survived and have put out very small new leaves. A few bush bean plants are still growing despite being splashed with mud. The stumps of lettuces have inspired a new ring of leaves and the bush fuchsia is making buds at the apex of each smashed stalk.
The roses are shocked out of summer and only a few undamaged buds have opened in stunned smallness . The peonies are long gone and even the stalwart ladies’ mantle is an unretrievable broken mass on the grass. I have been most surprised by the havoc reeked on the lavender, which was just budding and really shooting up. The hail has pockmarked virtually every flower stem and over the passing week they have slowly wilted and finally collapsed over the foliage.
I was going to throw a party to celebrate that fact that we are both now retired and survived many years of teaching. The garden has been my personal refuge, from the digitised soullessness horror of modern education. Now the garden gives me less pleasure, so I went to the co-op and bought some hanging fuchsias and begonias, new tomatoes plants, fennel and cabbage and parsley.
I thought trying an actual lemon plant would be pushing the metaphor way beyond its climatic boundaries.
I think the party will have to wait, until there has been more regrowth, but the lemonade jug is ready and waiting just in case!
This rose grows in the shadow of a thick hedge. It flowers each summer mostly ignored.
When a catastrophic hailstorm destroyed my garden a few days ago it was sheltered from the devastation and now its lone bloom is the most valued thing that there is left.
When we moved to our house 12 years ago, our new neighbours warned us about the hail storms that can trash everything in minutes and sighed at our desire to grow soft fruit and grapes. We listened politely and went ahead with planting raspberries and currants and vines. There were a few hail storms and one year we lost our potatoes, but nothing was too bad.
The thunder started early in the afternoon and went on for so long I just thought it was part of the music that was playing.
The hail stones were 2-3 cm in diameter. They broke plant pots, roof tiles and chipped off the plaster from the walls of the house. They bounced like ball barrings or frozen gob stoppers and smashed foliage as they fell. The lettuces were pulverised, the pumpkins, courgettes and green beans were pounded into the mud and the potato plants shredded into skeletons.
After spectacular lightening and yet more thunder, the heavens finally opened . Hail thundered down with a size and ferocity I have never encountered in any tropical country.
There is a single bud left on my lovely lilies . The peonies were atomised and my best ever year of roses were over in ten minutes of ice and biblical vengeance.
I have been clearing up as best I can but my garden is a very sorry sight.
The rose by the hedge was protected by the thick overhang and while the rest of the garden is broken and battered, this neglected rose escaped completely unharmed .
It is warm and still. I forgot to water my two tomato plants and the half row of beans that have shouldered above the soil.
My neighbour sneezes: the sweet chestnut is in flower. Somewhere a food processor churns, or is it a washing machine or a heat pump? Someone calls in a cat who wants to hunt the light night away. The cars have gone, a lone motorbike rips through the silence . Curfew is an hour away and the air is sweet.
Very small white moths appear. The hobby sheep bleats in the bottom of his lucky garden .
A mosquito whines along the gathering darkness, shutters are descending and the last blackbird fusses out of the cherry tree, a half eaten fruit in his yellow beak.
I think there is still a glass of wine undrunk indoors, so I leave the watering can by the butt, bow to the brightening moon and go quietly inside.
I was drinking tea on the bench outside (unbelievably it was warm enough!) and I noticed a couple of little moving balls in a web slung between bench and wall.
On closer inspection I saw that each ball was composed of hundreds of minute spiders. Some were huddled together closely and others were venturing slowly off along a maze of fine web. Each tiny spider was newly hatched and off to find a place to spin its first web in the garden. They were utterly perfect in their tiny ness .
Their mother had laid a cocoon before she died in the winter and her off spring had waited patiently for the warmth before they emerged. If I blew gently on them they scurried, so I left them to themselves and by the next day they were all gone.
It reminded me of that childhood classic “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White and I thought how extraordinary it was that I should have lived so long and never seen this marvellous event before.
Without the rain nothing grows, when it is dry we fret, when it is wet we moan.
It has been endlessly wet and very cool. The trees are loving it. There have been too many dry years and the stress has left them vulnerable to disease, but not this spring.
This spring has been full of rain and now it seems full of baby birds. In the cold, wet months they have managed to hatch and to rear their sodden young and now the foliage is full of hungry, demanding fledgelings and frantic feathered parents .
There were lines of fluffy sparrow chicks in the feeder house this morning waiting for mother to transfer the sunflower kernels into their beaks. In the wet cherry tree marsh tit chicks scolded and whined as they demanded food. Hidden in the spindle bush are baby blue tits also waiting for their share and on the grass a harassed male blackbird yanks half drowned worms out of the yielding earth for his enormous off spring. The young blackbird is as lumpen and unhelpful as a teenage boy, but his father dutifully crams him with food nonetheless.
My presence is disturbing them, rearing young in the rain is not easy.
They want the food I provide, but they don’t want me round.
We want the life that the rain gives but we don’t want the clouds.
Between the tropical down pours there was sunshine for a whole hour. The dandelion seed heads, that have been waiting for so long, took the water from the soil and pumped up their tall stems. In the strengthening sun light they pushed open the protective sepals.
Baby hair tufts of blonde seed parachutes slowly appeared like a crown . There was time to get my phone, to write this and time to watch as slowly, so slowly the parachutes made the perfect circle of seeds and the sun dried them out and the wind blew them away and the dandelions started all over again, all over again.
These unearthly things are greater horse tail spore bodies. They erupt out of the earth and look oddly like lawyers’ wig ink cap mushrooms.
They are in fact the last hurrah of a plant kingdom that once dominated the earth and towered over dinosaurs: tumbling down in their multitudes to form the Carboniferous geological layer that gave us coal and oil.
Now they are just one plant amongst many. A relative is an annoyingly tenacious weed in my garden and the silica in horse tail leaves made them handy pot scourers and wood polishers in other times. The greater horse tail likes damper places in woods and can indicate a spring line underground.
The spore bodies have no chlorophyll and die as soon as their ancient spores are shed. The leaves of odd whorls that inspired the concept of fractals come later and they can form great stands of plants.
They are oddities that momentarily surprise us before sinking back into the herbage
Maybe our reliance on the fossil fuels they left behind so long ago will seem equally surprising and unimportant one day. We can hope!
The weather in the window this morning is snow, unseasonal singular flakes, a slow winter’s final shiver. On such an occasion to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up for a whole generation – that crew whose survival was always the stuff of minor miracle, who came ashore in orange-crate coracles, fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.
Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets, regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business. Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became both inner core and outer case in a family heirloom of nesting dolls. Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.
They were sons of a zodiac out of sync with the solar year, but turned their minds to the day’s big science and heavy questions. To study their hands at rest was to picture maps showing hachured valleys and indigo streams, schemes of old campaigns and reconnaissance missions. Last of the great avuncular magicians they kept their best tricks for the grand finale: Disproving Immortality and Disappearing Entirely.
The major oaks in the wood start tuning up and skies to come will deliver their tributes. But for now, a cold April’s closing moments parachute slowly home, so by mid-afternoon snow is recast as seed heads and thistledown.
In spring there is so much to notice, so much to hear, smell and to see that writing about it all seems an unprofitable use of this wonderful time of year; but somehow I still like to try to capture a little of it in words, so here I go.
The woods are full of fighting wrens. Tiny balls of feathers explode out of the undergrowth and cascade down in furious brawls over mates and territories. These secretive birds are suddenly everywhere and they don’t care if you notice them in their brief spring bruiserish personas . They will soon melt back into the leaves to raise their tiny brood of chicks in quiet and anonymous safety.
It has been a good year for cowslips and for the shiny yellow stars of lesser celandine. The celandine are slowly colonising the corners of my garden and the late spring has allowed their flowers to shine for weeks . It’s country name is pilewort as it is good for curing piles apparently!
The tree leaves are appearing like a green smoke and wild cherry blossom in the woods is thin and unexpected like a lace curtain hastily pulled over an indiscreet window. Before the leaves join into the screen of summer some couples are still visible. I noticed these two trees growing into each other a few days ago. The smooth bark I think belongs to a hornbeam and the fissured bark is a robinia . The bark is melding and there is something ludicrously romantic about their unlikely and supportive intimacy.
The blackcaps have returned to the garden and so have the redstarts with their electric crackle of song. One of our nest boxes that has been spurned for years due to our ( and many, many others) cats may finally be home to some blue tits and the kestrels are back to nest in the barn opposite. My husband heard a cuckoo yesterday morning and in the evening I saw the first swallows racing over the garden and all the bright, bright unfurling leaves.
This bright daffodil was growing on the edge of the wood and maybe wild or may be not.
The wild daffodils I have seen in Gloucestershire and Wales have paler outer petals, so the uniform yellowness of this flower made it seem more like a hybrid of some description. Wild or not, the most remarkable thing about the flower was the myriad of tiny shiny black beetles all over it. I have never noticed them in my life, but Meligethes aeneus or pollen beetle is a common beetle in gardens and farmland apparently. They love yellow flowers and clothes and yellow tennis balls. They eat pollen and can be a problem on rape seed crops, but are no cause for alarm in a garden. They were as beautiful and remarkable as the flower that they were feeding on.
This morning I braved the garden centre and was cheered by the plants and depressed by the row upon row of chemicals on sale to kill “weeds” moss, insects, moles in our gardens.
The link between Parkinson’s Disease and farmers and gardeners who have been in close contact with glyphosate /paraquat such as Roundup herbicide is becoming stronger and stronger and legal cases are being amassed against the manufacturers of such chemicals. We have to find beauty in all aspects of nature and crucially to find a balance between our need for bountiful crops and our need for good human health and a healthy ecosystem . Not drenching our own backyards and gardens with perniciously noxious chemicals would seem the obvious place to start!
We have to find space for the daffodil and the bug!
Today was warm and the cones on the pine trees started to crack open, slow releasing their tough seeds onto the ground.
Green woodpeckers yaffled, spotted woodpeckers drummed and the greenfinches sneered their wonderfully adolescent long single whine from the branches.
Butterflies woke up . There were brimstones, comma, red admirals and small tortoiseshells, bright against the brown mud in my garden as they shook colour back into the world.
In doors I sat at the kitchen table and watched the images from Mars on a laptop.
The rover descending and filming the surface as it came closer and closer, I saw the ridges and the red craters, the tantalising aquamarine shapes and then the sand of the very surface blown by the rover landing, engulfed it all.
I listened to the sound of Mars.
A wind blew between the clicks and bleeps of the machine that had travelled so far to hear it. In my kitchen, as the pine cones split open, I heard the wind on planet Mars and existence was astounding again and again.
I was listening to a program about the importance of the written word: the really written word, made by a human being pushing a pencil along a sheet of paper . I was inspired to share a poem I wrote this morning after listening to bird song from the garden through an open window.
The physical words have an added significance for me, as they are increasingly hard to make. I have Multiple Sclerosis and hand writing can be almost impossible for me some days, likewise typing . Voice dictation does not allow for poetry . The whole point of the unexpected word perplexes the machine and it will change and change it again until it has made dull prose out of something that I wanted to catch the light unexpectedly, like the song of the blackbird.
I hope my writing is good enough for you to read is all senses of the word!
In January there really is little to see except cold, hungry birds and so I return to my records of the moths that I have seen during the better part of the year.
One of my strangest photographs was of a very distinctive black and white moth which I could not identify from my moth books.
I had sent the record in to the LPO as an an unidentified specimen knowing that the moth recorder checks such a unnamed moths in the depths of the winter and may well provide an identification for me.
When the days were suitably dark and moths were suitably absent, a positive ID came back: it was a wonderful rare Lycia zonaria the Belted Beauty !
These moth are extinct in mainland Britain. The last records were from the sand dunes of costal Cheshire, but golf courses and the heavy tramp of healthy walkers have done for them and they are now only found in Orkney. The females are flightless home bodies, who cannot stray far from the right sandy grassland and they are not plentiful anywhere .
We live about as far from the sea as you can get in Europe and our ground is not at all sandy, but somewhere a female belted beauty must have found the right spot to hatch and to send out her perfume on the night air to this lucky male. His feathery antenna are designed to detect her subtle sent and I very much hope that they guided him safely to his mate the next night. I like to think that some new Belted Beauties were made last Marchand that that they just might return this spring to tantalise and gladden the heart with their very rare beauty.
I slept late this morning. I hate waking up when it’s still dark and today I took the luxury of sleeping the darkness away.
There’s been heavy snow here, pretty but crushing , it has bowed down the bushes, cracked open the rosemary and flattened the wallflowers that were waiting gamely through the winter for the spring.
However, while I
slept a wonderful warm wind rattled the house, bangle the shutters, whistled through the door jambs and gave me vivid spring dreams full of light. The thick snow slid from the roofs and crashing roars of noise that would normally have me jumping with fear, were intertwined with my dreams to produce formless exhilarating sensations .
I went to sleep in the winter and woke in spring time.
In the garden the sky was huge and racing blue and white. Everything smelt of growth and possibility. The cats were afraid of the scurrying leaves and the howling trees, but I just filled my lungs with the warm air and rejoiced.
The limbo time between Christmas and New Year feels very like the whole year has felt. Waiting to start again, but still enjoying the quiet and expanded sense of time between the tinsel and the fireworks of hope: safe and separate and too much time to listen to the unexpected silence.
In the quiet there are always the barrel rolling ravens and a flurry of bright goldfinches hanging on to the long birch in the wind.
In an unploughed field a single chaffinch does what gave her her name and pecks amongst the stalks for spilt grain.
A mole has pushed up a soft hill on the edge of the field and there is a definite line across its peak as if a playful walker has drawn a walking stick across it . I bend down to examine the mud and realise that the track has in fact been made by the passage of tiny vole feet. There is a vole hole between the mole hill and the field edge . The vole, like the chaffinch has been gleaning the spilt grains of corn and pulling them into his burrow to feed on them in muddy safety.
The year is coming to an end and we stay warm and fed underground with the moles and the voles . Spring will come, but winter has its own quiet virtues too.
I promised to tell you how my attempt to grow my own loofas went.
I bought the seed last winter when cutting down on plastic seemed the most important thing in the world. Well, the seeds germinated well and
the seedlings grew. I identified a good place against a wire fence to plant them out and watered them in. Then it turned wet and the cats were both sick and the slugs came out and ate the plants down to the ground when I wasn’t looking!
End of story.
What is astonishing about this little tale is that a whole year has gone by since I bought the seeds and the whole world has grown so strange since then.
I feel as if I haven’t been out of the garden or house since then. Time has folded in on itself so much since then that I am not sure I ever planted the loofa seedlings at all, or what I was hoping to achieve by growing them.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time this covid year staring at my two cats Winston and Pixie and marveling at their markings. They are brother and sister who were living in a neighbor’s greenhouse as kittens. We took them in and have always been fascinated by how many wild cat genes they might carry.
There are wild cats here in the edge of the Jura and I have seen cats on the edge of the forest with the tell tale fat banded tail and the black Pom Pom on the end.
Pixie has the classic wildcat tail, when she is being really agressive or scared, it quadruples in size and my little affectionate Pixie becomes a fluffy monster. Her larger brother Winston has some of the wildcat markings, but no where near as many as his sister, he has sleek velvety fur and classic tabby cat stripes. They both have wildcat cat ear tufts.
This useful illustration of the markings on a cats back is the best I have found for telling a tabby from a real wild cat.
It could be Pixie A (wild cat) and Winston B, ( tabby cat ) but as they are sister and brother I think all that it proves is that cats, just like humans are a bit of everything and wonderfully mixed up like us all!
Being alive is all the colours in between and simplification is so often trivialization, however fervently we may yearn for the comforting separation of thought and experience .
The hunters have been shooting the wild boar in the forest with what sounds like elephant guns. The hunters wave to us as they pass us in their vehicles because they see us in the woods so often. We wave back, pleased to see that they are wearing masks, appropriately socially distanced as they drive off to kill.
When we head for home there are two pigs hanging on hooks behind the lodge, waiting to be butchered . Their feet dangling in the air are so tiny, so elegant it seems improbable that they could have ever have carried such muscular weight .
The next day we see ravens when we walk to the woods and then more and then more. Ravens are always in pairs and they talk to one another raucously when the winter comes. I think of bickering and companionable married couples as they roll overhead in a sky that is ready to snow.
There are so many ravens and they are so close to us and so loud, that we realize there must be meat near by to make them so excited .
Of course there is: the hunters’ lodge is very close and the entrails of the butchered boar must have gone somewhere.
The ravens were uproarious with delight . The couples were contented and after feasting, they descended into the stubble to clean their gory great black beaks in the clean winter field.
I have been keeping a close eye on the research about the usefulness of face masks to protect us from Covid infection. Unfortunately the cloth masks we have made, are not very effective at filtering out the virus . Disposable masks with pinch-able nose bridges are much better, but it seems terrible to use something once and then throw it away and it goes against all my green principles!
By mistake I have often machine washed a disposable mask that has been left in the pocket of clothes. I have been surprised by how the process has not harmed it all and how fresh and intact it was after a long wash. I was delighted therefore to read that studies have shown that a disposable mask can be machine washed, tumble dried and even ironed 10 times before its filtration of covid virus is impaired.
This is really good news to keep more of us safer and doing less harm to the environment while we wait for the vaccine to restore normal ( what ever that is! ) life!!
Today sounds of robins, their rich round burble of music rolls from the hedge and is answered in kind by their mate hidden in the tall tree . Robin song always sounds like Britain and is a relaxing link with home. Here in France they are much rarer in gardens and I can go a whole year without seeing one in the garden. They remind me of my garden in Wales, which was a damp suburban slice in the shade of a magnificent oak tree.
We loved the tree as soon as we saw it and owning the tree was as exciting as owning the little bungalow that sheltered under its bows .
The oak was pollarded periodically and then we left it to go and see the world and the bungalow and guardian oak was rented out to a long succession of tenants.
At the very end of this summer, when the tree was thick with green leaves there was a huge storm and the wonderful tree was uprooted. It walked like an ent from Tolkein across the lawn and it threw itself onto the little bungalow and crushed it utterly .
The house in boarded up now and there is a temporary roof on. It will be rebuilt, we had insurance, the tenant is OK and rehoused, but the oak is gone forever. It was all very shocking.
When the tree was still lying across the house it appeared as if the foliage had simply finally engulfed the upstart house, but when it was sawn up and hauled away by a crane, the full extent of the devastation was apparent.
This was the house we (and the bank) bought when we were first married and we always considered that it was the home we could return to when our wandering was over.
Brexit, Covid and a huge storm has made even knowing where home is anymore , more more difficult .
So when I hear the robins sing I think of our lost oak tree and hope it set plenty of acorns in the hedge for when and if, we ever go home.
This little garden spider came in on a colis plant that will be livening up my window sill this winter. I think that spider webs are lucky and if she avoids my cats, she might just make it to the spring with the rest of us.
The following link will take you to a really good news story about the rediscovery of the wolf spider that was thought extinct in the UK for years. It is also inspiring to see what dedicated amateur naturalists can discover by perseverance.
when the sun came out , the air was improbable with ladybirds. Everywhere I looked there were ladybirds landing fatly on the walls of the house, on the chairs, on my trousers. Before I can get close they disappeared slipping and into cracks , easing their fat ways in between the door frame and the door – all looking for somewhere to spend the winter where they will be warm and safe.
I will find them all winter long and in the spring they will emerge from the safe cracks and if they’re lucky will be liberated to start the spring. If they’re unlucky they die of exhaustion and get swept up in the winter.
Out in the countryside the farmers are harvesting the maize and the noise is tremendous. Fuming about man-made disruption, I walked into the forest and acorns rained down all around me from the oak trees. It sounded like hail and I was glad of my hat as they pinged around me and clattered down heavily from the branches overhead.
In the countryside the farmers were harvesting maize with a roar of machinery that sent me into the forestin search of peace. Acorns were raining down as loud as hail: ricocheting off branches and trunks and I was grateful for my bike hat as the acorns whizzed passed my ears.
When I was out of the woods there was a new noise as a great flock of migrating pigeons made a cloud of sound over my head. Their wings pushed stockily against the breaking clouds and I could hear the very rattle of their feathers .
They are off to find a place to feed and fatten away from the coming winter , just like the ladybirds.
I took my cue and turned home to light the fire in the stove which always makes me feel as safe and as snug as a bug in a rug!